Robin Jenkins

Born: 21 September, 1912, at Flemington, near Cambuslang.

Died: 24 February, 2005, at Inverclyde Royal Hospital, aged 92.

(JOHN) Robin Jenkins, hailed by many as the greatest Scottish novelist of his age, was born in a small town and had a real understanding of small-town life. His father died when he was seven, and he and his sisters were brought up in straitened circumstances by a hard-working mother, an anxious experience transformed movingly into his second novel Happy For the Child, in which an over-sensitive, brilliant little boy strives for almost unattainable success.

The savage irony of the title was to be characteristic. When he wrote next about football, he set his tale, with multiple irony, not at Ibrox but in Cambuslang, yet entitled it The Thistle and the Grail.

He was educated at Hamilton Academy and Glasgow University, where he failed to find teachers who satisfied his love of poetry and prose. He later became a teacher in Glasgow, and accompanied a schoolful of primary pupils who were evacuated to Moffat in 1939. This was inspiration for his fine and compassionate novel Guests of War, perhaps the finest British rendition of that painful yet comic civilian cataclysm. It is as funny as Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, but far more humane.

Jenkins was known for being blunt, and often opinionated. He was never a religious believer, and tended to make his own moral decisions and stick to them tenaciously. He did, before the war, belong to the Independent Labour Party. "The ILP must be the purest political party that ever existed. So pure that they were just blown away in the end by this wicked world," he said, and went on to assert: "I judge all political issues from a moral point of view." He later feared his books were sometimes "over-steeped in morality".

To the surprise of none of his acquaintances, when war came he was a conscientious objector, and faced two tribunals on strictly moral and personal grounds, repudiating a religious defence. He was sent to work in forestry in Argyll, an experience which coloured many of the subsequent novels, most notably his best-known, The Cone-Gatherers.

The radiant nature of the cone- gatherers’ sunlit forest, not far from the submarines spelling war, was ever- present in the book. Another opposition was to appear in later novels, between the spirit-numbing qualities of the Glasgow slums he had experienced in his early teaching days, and a life-enhancing natural beauty which could nourish people in very real ways. This led, for example, to the tragic death of Tom Curdie in The Changeling, when a bumbling but well-meaning schoolteacher tries to rescue one child, at least temporarily, from the life he knows in Glasgow. It also led to the desperate aspirations of slum-dweller Bell McShelvie in Guests of War.

After the war, Jenkins continued to gain a literary reputation, although he was unlucky with most of his publishers: his books were poorly marketed, and seldom appeared in paperback.

He eventually decided against a teaching career, preferring more free time to write, and moved to Dunoon, where he and his wife, May, settled on the beautiful Cowal Peninsula, from then on his home. They had their children, but then Jenkins developed a wanderlust which he ever after questioned. The relentless moralist, he asked himself repeatedly in retrospect whether he should not have stayed in Scotland and helped to criticise, analyse and chastise its shortcomings.

In all, he spent ten years in Afghanistan, Borneo and Spain, each country inspiring new work. The best of these, perhaps, is Dust on the Paw, set in Afghanistan, with a huge array of characters of all races, and "Bonny Chung", a short story about a Chinese in a fine collection, A Far Cry from Bowmore.

But meantime, and on his return, he worried about the state of Scotland, and the possibilities of seeing it "with fresh and truthful eyes". He began to believe that religion, which he had always questioned, did "more harm than good", and analysed extremes of "holiness" in A Toast to the Lord and A Would-be Saint.

He was sometimes despondent, famously storing new novels "in the drawer" rather than publishing them.

When I interviewed him in 1985, he saw himself as a lonely and unheeded voice, preaching morals to a Scotland that was heedless. His opinions were damning. "I think I blame Americans for all the troubles in the world, and I blame the English for Scotland being the wee dump that it is."

He repeatedly expressed surprise that I found the "morals" in his books gentler and more compassionate than he retrospectively allowed: he regarded himself as a person "who’s not very given readily to sympathise". If anything, with time he did perhaps soften: the self-appointed scourge of Scotland and apostle of irreverence maybe reached a peak in Just Duffy, and in the many novels he went on to publish, compassion has its due place, as in the work of most great writers.

He was a man of great strength of purpose, which carried him through bad times. Worst was the death of his wife in 1988, which caused him to turn uniquely to verse with a moving tribute, "Now that May has gone". He wrote on, movingly, about old age, in Willie Hogg and Childish Things, while never losing his comic edge. He lost his teacher son, Colin, of heart failure, but rejoiced in his daughters, Anne and Helen, his four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren in England and the United States.

In recent years there have been honours. An OBE in 1999; the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award for making an outstanding contribution to Scottish Life in 2002, and a lifetime award from the Scottish Arts Council and the Saltire Society in 2003. There are probably more novels in the drawer: we must hope so. But with his passing we lose the most accomplished novelist of our time, responsible for some 30 books over 50 years. The best of these books? We might mention The Cone-Gatherers, one of his own favourites, a masterpiece of concision and terrible pathos, or Fergus Lamont, a large-scale critique of the Scottish psyche, magnificent, comic, vibrant, grotesque, irreverent and moving.

Scotland has lost in Jenkins the fiercest critic of its weaknesses, a great celebrant of its peculiarities and its finest contemporary novelist.